May 19th 2022

Talking About Art

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

Robert Frost gave countless public readings of his poems to earn a living, but when audience members asked what a poem meant, he declined: "I tell them that if I wanted them to know what I was saying I would have told them."   Frost worked painstakingly to find the particular sounds and rhythms that would allow his poems to express his perceptions, and he wanted others to experience them first-hand, without commentary that might distract from the poem itself.  When Alfred Stieglitz was asked about the meaning of his photographs, he replied that "if the artist could explain in words what he has made, he would not have had to create it."  Experimental innovators generally believe that the most important elements of their work are not subject to analysis or articulation.   Francis Bacon remarked that "if you could explain your painting you would be explaining your instincts."  And after describing how he conceived his designs, Frank Lloyd Wright reflected that "Of course what is most vitally important in all that I have tried to say and explain cannot be explained at all."  Thinking of working in his studio surrounded by assistants, he mused that "in this searching process may be seen the architect's mind at work, as boys in the studio would crowd around and participate in it... Certain hints coming through between the lines that may help someone who needs help in comprehending what planning a building really means."

Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught."  They believed that "The way to learn to paint is to hang around artists," and this was the opportunity their school would provide.  Frost, Stieglitz, Bacon, Wright, and Motherwell all held the experimental conviction that works of art make their statements in a particular form, that cannot be communicated in any other way - hence Frost's celebrated definition of poetry as "that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation."

Conceptual artists more often believe that the messages of their works can be translated.  Jean-Luc Godard, for example, considers film the best way to express his ideas, but not the only way: "Were the cinema to disappear, I would simply accept the inevitable and turn to television; were television to disappear, I would revert to pencil and paper."  No genre stood entirely apart, "For there is a clear continuity between all forms of expression.  It's all one."

Conceptual artists are also more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary.  You might keep that letter then, so that in case you should meet somebody who might be induced to buy some of my studies, you could tell that man my own thoughts and intentions exactly.  My thought in this being especially: one of my drawings taken separately will never give satisfaction in the long run, but a number of studies, however different in detail they may be, will nevertheless complement each other."  Van Gogh was a prototype of a kind of artist who would become more common later in the modern era, a conceptual innovator who created a personal symbolic language that held specific meanings for him, that would not be apparent to others unless they studied many of his works.

Van Gogh's suggestion that he would write a text explaining his art to potential buyers presaged a significant development in the art of the next century.  Published statements by painters on behalf of their art became so numerous in the first half of the 20th century that the critic Arthur Danto named this the Age of Manifestos.  Hundreds of these manifestos were produced by conceptual artists, who used them to publicize their work, to explain their innovations to collectors, and to assert their superiority to earlier movements.  The key to the effectiveness of many of these manifestos was the highly theoretical goals and practices of the artists involved: theory often preceded practice, and indeed overshadowed it.  Thus Marjorie Perloff observed of one example that "the real point is that theory IS the practice... To talk about art became equivalent to making it."  And to read about art became equivalent to seeing it, so that conceptual innovations could diffuse much more rapidly and widely than previously.  The nearly complete absence of experimental innovators from this outpouring of texts is not surprising, for perceptions are less easily verbalized than ideas, and artistic seekers are acutely aware of this.  Thus when the bookish Robert Motherwell pondered the failure of Abstract Expressionism to produce a manifesto, he reflected that "the very nature of the manifesto is to affirm forcefully and unambiguously, and not to express the existential doubt and the anxiety that we all felt.  Certain kinds of paintings are easier to describe and to evoke (and perhaps to make) than others."

 

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